If movies are to be believed, outer space is a war zone where military forces respond to alien threats with a barrage of hot, American lead. The reality is that weapons are incredibly rare in space. That's good, because nothing spells apocalypse quicker than a space station armed with weapons of mass destruction.
While the international community has worked hard to keep space as weapons-free as possible that doesn't mean that there isn't a single weapon floating around up there in the darkness. An international treaty bans nations from positioning large-scale weapons in space but there is no such law preventing astronauts from carrying small arms into orbit. In fact, Russian astronauts are known to pack some serious heat. But weaponizing space remains controversial, which is why most astronauts don't like talking about the guns kept on the International Space Station (ISS).
Of course, not every country feels the same way about space warfare. It was recently released that a Russian space cannon was hidden in orbit for years before being decommissioned. So do astronauts really need to carry guns into space, or are the few guns in space an outdated relic from the competitive history of space travel?
First and foremost, astronauts are scientists, and the ISS is essentially a research lab designed to be a symbol of world peace and international cooperation. But for all of the good feelings, there is usually a gun on board the station. The weapon belongs to the Russians and has been issue for Russian cosmonauts since the 1960s.
Russian astronauts bring it with them whenever they are sent into orbit, and it is usually stored in the Soyuz capsule they ride in on. Since there is usually a Russian presence on the ISS at any given time, that means that the weapon is a semipermanent fixture of the station.
Until 2007, the TP-82 served as the standard weapon carried on all Russian space missions. The gun was specifically created for the Russian space program and is the Swiss army knife of firearms. The TP-82 includes three different barrels designed to fire different types of projectiles. One is capable of firing shotgun rounds, the second is meant for rifle slugs, and the third is a specially crafted chamber that can launch rescue flares. If that doesn't get the job done, the detachable stock that can be unsheathed and used as a survival machete.
Today, the TP-82 is a relic, as the original manufacturer no longer produces ammunition compatible with this unique weapon and all stores have since passed their expiration date.
Space sounds terrifying, but at least it's not home to giant bears and killer wolves. The same can't be said about the Siberian wilderness where Russian astronauts often touch down on their return from orbit. After one particularly bad experience in 1965 left a cosmonaut stranded in the wild for days without anything to fend off the local wildlife, the Soviet government began including a gun in all emergency survival kits sent to space. While the gun has never been fired by a cosmonaut in self defense, it is still included in the kit as a necessary survival tool.
American astronauts routinely fly on Russian spacecraft, and are therefore required to train with Russian cosmonauts and the equipment they use. This included the TP-82 and astronauts have publicly spoken about their experience firing one.
"I found it to be well-balanced, highly accurate, and convenient to use," said American astronaut Dave Wolf. Astronaut Jim Voss candidly recounted a story to NBC News about shooting bottles while stationed on a Russian training vessel in the Black Sea. "We threw the bottles as far as possible, probably 20 or 30 meters, then shot them. It was trivial to hit the bottles with the shotgun shells, and relatively easy to hit them with the rifle bullets on the first shot," said Voss.